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A Note from The Cherry Orchard’s Artistic Director Brian Kulick
Play Without A Pistol
“There are moments when an overwhelming desire comes over me to create a four-act farce or comedy for the Moscow Art Theatre,” wrote the ailing Chekhov to his wife, “and I shall write one if nothing prevents me, only I shan’t deliver it to the theatre before the end of 1903.” By January of 1902 Chekhov confesses to his wife in another letter that, “The reason I haven’t written you about my forthcoming play is not that I don’t trust you, but that I don’t trust the play. It’s just a faint glimmering in the brain, and I don’t yet know myself what it’s like or what will come of it, and it changes shape every day!” This shape-shifting quality will haunt Chekhov and his newly titled play, THE CHERRY ORCHARD, throughout much of its composition. By September of 1903, Chekhov seems even more bewildered by his ever-evolving dramatic creation, writing once again to his wife that, “The play is finished, I’m already copying it. It’s true that my characters have turned out as living people, but what the play is like as a play I don’t know.” This uncertainty has plagued the author, audiences, artists and critics ever since, leading to a raging debate that began with the play’s first production in 1904 and continues, unabated, a century later.
Initial audiences and critics were respectful of the play. By now, Chekhov was something of an institution, and yet Nemirovich-Danchenko (co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre) noted in his autobiography that it took quite some time before THE CHERRY ORCHARD “really got through to its audience.” The early reviews predominantly dwelled upon the sociological rather than the dramatic, focusing on the play’s depiction of widespread peasant unrest, the seemingly ill-defined principles of the young radical Trofimov, and a tremendous amount of ink was spent on the character of Lopakhin who, much to the dismay of the early critics, did not conform to their image of a “typical Russian merchant.” But slowly, this first “sociological” reaction of the play gave way to a more considered commentary and by the mid 20th Century, THE CHERRY ORCHARD began to emerge as one of the clear precursors to what we would now call modern drama. Perhaps we can thank artists like Beckett and Pinter for helping us see, retrospectively, what was so extraordinary about Chekhov’s late writing.
They were the first to embrace Chekhov’s revolutionary understanding of language as a series of failed communications within ourselves and between one another; and, conversely, how the unsaid can often speak louder than words themselves, leading to Chekhov’s fondness for ellipses which will grow into the “Pinter Pause” and Beckett’s confounding “silences.” It is here, amongst the failed and broken language, that one discerns some fundamental, unknowable subtext, a subtext so secret that not even the characters themselves know its total meaning, thus rendering all behavior somehow mysterious, shrouding the otherwise quotidian dealings of these Russian landowners and transforming their cares into strange, cautionary parables for today.
Perhaps this is Chekhov’s ultimate alchemy, a melding of his two beloved artistic forms, realism and symbolism, into a provocative hybrid. His late stories and plays seem to resemble our world on the outside and yet somehow, deep within them, rests a secret metaphysical core that suggests that everything we see and hear actually means more than we can ever think or feel. His characters continually mutter, “If only we knew, if only we knew…,” a Chekhovian mantra of sorts that begins with the characters and ends in our own fascination with these dual worlds. A strange, evocative dramatic landscape where Madam Ranevskaya and her family’s expulsion from their beloved cherry orchard seems to be both a well-observed sociological fact and a modern day Biblical parable at the same time. A kind of “second fall.”
Chekhov himself seemed aware of this newfound emphasis in his writing and described it in another letter to his wife: “However boring my play may be, I think there’s something new about it. Incidentally, there’s not a single pistol shot in the whole play!” This last remark points to Chekhov’s ongoing chagrin at having to rely on what he considered the “melodramatic device” of a gun being seen and ultimately used in order to give his plays some semblance of dramatic tension. Chekhov, with each successive play, tries to rid himself of this trope, finally relegating it to an off-stage sound in THREE SISTERS. And now, finally, in THE CHERRY ORCHARD, Chekhov is free of such a melodramatic effect altogether, replacing it with perhaps the most famous stage direction in the whole of 20th Century drama. Late in the second act we find the following sentence: “Everyone sits deep in thought. It is very quiet. All that can be heard is Firs’ low muttering. Suddenly a distant sound is heard. It seems to come from the sky and is the sound of a breaking string. It dies away sadly.”
Now just what is this sound that so unnerves Madam Ranevskaya, her family, and ultimately us!? The characters try to dismiss it as “a cable that must have broken somewhere away in the mines,” or “perhaps it was a bird, a heron,” “Or an owl.” All agree that there is something terribly disagreeable about it. It seems, like so much of late Chekhov, to mean more than just a random accident or sound from nature; it seems to augur some final celestial judgment, some metaphysical punctuation that marks the end of one age and the beginning of the next. The genius of late Chekhov is that it can be and ultimately is all of these things, and a moment or so later, it is forgotten by those on stage, making it all the more foreboding to us in the audience.
It is an extraordinary moment in the development of modern theatre, showing Chekhov at his most sublimely poetic—an image that would, no doubt, annoy our author, who was also a real man of the theatre and would write to his wife about this moment:
“Tell Nemirovich that the sound in Acts Two and Four of THE CHERRY ORCHARD must be shorter, and it must be felt as coming from a great distance. What a lot of fuss about nothing—not being able to cope with a trifle like this, a mere noise…”
How humbling for all of us that this universally-acknowledged turning point in modern drama would be thought of by its author as “a lot of fuss about nothing.” It may indeed be a “trifle,” but it changed the course of western theatre forever.
– Brian Kulick, Artistic Director